Chapter Five


The Buyer


The news that a new Priest of Priests had been anointed in the Holy City of Ka did not reach the backwoods of Natan for many months and the changes and political intrigues taking place in the urban life of Khanlar went without notice in places like Havor's Holding.

The moon was reborn and eaten by Pavia's Dragon three times after the visit of the Church Troopers before the next official visitors came to Havor's Holding, however these visitors were expected, for they came every year.  The one thing the Havors could always rely on in their simple life was the coming of Vanaten the Buyer and his train of wagons at the end of the Spring.  Perhaps that was why Rune decided to stay home this time and watch the buying instead of doing as he had always done before, when he had slipped away into hiding watching the loading of charcoal bags and dickering over trade goods from the safety of the woods.

The house, in fact the entire holding, had changed much in the years since Rune had arrived.  They had added another room to their home and had paved the yard into three terraces between the house and the barn, bordered by the house to the north and the barn to the south and they had built chest high stone walls to enclose the other sides.  The boys and Rune had dug a well in the yard during the previous summer, which in the winter saw it's contents turned to solid ice, nevertheless it gave the yard a very civilized look even then.  They had bought another cow that was in calf at the time from a neighbor and their original cow had been put to the same neighbor's bull three times since Rune had arrived.  They even had a mule now to pull the small cart he had made to make the task of bringing the bags of charcoal up to the barn a little easier.  It was a docile animal that a passing herder had sold them for two bags of charcoal and a night's lodging. 

In truth while Khanlar as a whole was suffering decline Havor's Holding was experiencing growth and good times.  They painted the house with a new coat of whitewash every year inside and out and the little vegetable patch of a few years ago had grown to over an acre under cultivation.  Rune had also become proficient with a bow, which had meant that they were eating more meat and had a good supply of deer hides.  Kirene, who was now a young woman, had become a competent seamstress providing them with well made clothes and Kirdi had become a cobbler of sorts under Rune's encouragement, so that they all now wore leather shoes or boots.

The Havor's held their holding from the Prince of Natan, (whoever he might be these days) and as his tenants they had to produce a full quota every twelve months to maintain their rights to the holding.  The Buyer was the collector of that tithe or rent, coming each year at the end of Spring to gather up the stacked bags of charcoal to take them back to his master in the City of Natan.  Vanaten was the fourth generation of his family to hold the post of Buyer and everyone knew that his family had grown rich from their activities over the years, for not only did he collect the quota but he also traded for any charcoal and goods the tenant families could produce beyond that which the Prince demanded as rent.  Vanaten would then sell the extra charcoal and other products for a good profit in the farms and towns along his routes.  He enjoyed a monopoly and was rewarded well for it, as he traded with the charcoal makers and tenant farmers of the forest without any competition whatsoever, paying for what they manufactured with those essential trade goods and food supplies they could not provide for themselves.  Vanaten needed very little coin to invest in his trade goods, for he rarely paid out more than a few coppers, sometimes a shilling or two, to any of the people he dealt with.

So it was that the family looked forward to the Buyer's visits almost as much as they did the mid-winter Feast, for they received not only those basics and luxuries which made life worth living but they also gained news of the outside world.  They might not want to go out there but there was excitement and romance in the stories the Buyer brought with him, the more so because they did not have to think of them as anything more than just stories.  The fact was however, that although they might talk about the visit for months afterwards it rarely lasted more than a few hours, while the sacks were counted and then loaded onto the wagons.  Even so Mother never failed to treat it as a holiday, bringing out her home-made elderberry wine for the occasion and spending the week prior to it cleaning the whole holding to be ready for the admiration she believed it deserved. 

This year however the buyer was not exactly happy to sit down on the porch with a glass of home made wine and spend time with her the way he had in years past.  They noticed the same look of fear in Vanaten's eyes that they had seen in the eyes of the troopers they had entertained during the winter.  He took many sidelong glances at the forest edge, as if he expected something frightening to come charging out of it at any moment and each of the wagons carried a guard beside the driver with a loaded cross-bow held at the ready for any trouble that might suddenly occur.  The obvious tension their visitors felt was made even more obvious by the way they seemed never to take their eyes off the tree line of the clearing for more than a few seconds at a time.  The other new thing added to these strange proceedings was a prison wagon which traveled in the center of the train.  In it were a dozen or so half-starved convicts, linked to each other with chains and wearing manacles and leg-irons.  They were a defeated bunch, half starved and dressed in rags that could do little to keep them warm at night, for even at this time of year frosts were not uncommon. 

While the slaves worked carrying the Havor's sacks out of the barn to load on the wagons the Buyer gave the family the little news his fear allowed him to concentrate on.  Vanaten told them of the anointing of a new Priest of Priests, whom he described as a fanatic who seemed bent on having every man, woman and child in Khanlar live like the monks in some Gods-forsaken Silent Order.  Natan was now ruled by a Bishop, who occupied the deposed Prince Jarin's palace and their fellow Natanese in the city and towns were suffering from many hardships, not least of which was a shortage of food.  There were few Natanese men between the ages of sixteen and sixty in the land who were not chained like those who were loading the wagons, or had they escaped the chains of a slave they had been forced into hiding in the forests to avoid arrest for crimes their desperation continuously forced them to commit.  There were of course higher taxes and fear was everywhere, as the outlaws of the defeated Brotherhood continued to stir up trouble throughout the land.  It was hard, the buyer said, to know how they managed to keep up the fight, come to that it was hard to work out who they were with so many ex-soldiers of the Brotherhood marching around in chains these days.  Some even said they were the Ghosts of those who had died, that the Gods would not let into the after life because of their heresy.

"There's also the problem of the newcomers. . ."  Said the Buyer, looking around him to be sure no unfriendly ears might overhear his words,  "It seems like all the younger sons of the other Nations, not to mention greed motivated merchants from all over Khanlar looking for a quick profit, are coming into the conquered territories.  It's funny in a way, with the old Alliance Nations suffering absolute poverty as they are, but they still expect to find the rich pickings the Priests promised them during the War.  Even the Church is getting in on the business of quick profits and is selling off the children of Natanese to these men for a few shillings, whenever some desperate family gets into any sort of debt.  I tell you, you people are lucky to be out of it, there's hundreds of people in the towns would swap with you and pay you overage to live like you do.  You can thank the Binding Laws which keep folk tied to the place they were in when the War ended that they're not all out here camping in the meadow.  Mind you a lot of poor folk in those Nations who sided with the Church have taken to the roads of late, looking for a better chance elsewhere, but they're not likely to come into the occupied lands, I shouldn't think."

There was a snapping sound in the forest, a sound the Havor's recognized at once as a deer stepping on a dry branch, but it caused the Buyer to almost fall out of his chair as he spun round to look in the direction from which it had come.  They also noticed every guard on the wagons turn as if in a drill movement and one or two started to stand and bring their crossbows up to the shoulder ready to fire.

"What do you fear so much from a deer stepping on a dead branch?"  Rune asked, a little more sarcastically than he would have liked, however Vanaten missed the sarcasm completely in his preoccupation with his own safety.

"There's more in the forest than deer these days and much for an honest man to fear when he's out of the city and away from the protection of the troopers."  Vanaten said, without even seeming to notice them, almost as if he were reassuring himself, but they could see the beads of sweat that fright had brought out on his florid face.  He obviously felt he had something very real to fear out here in the forest.  The fact that the manacled slaves were doing the work rather than the usual peasant youths and tavern throw-outs, showed that even the very poor would rather seek work elsewhere and risk being hungry, than venture into the countryside these days.

Vanaten and Mother moved away then towards the trade goods cart, for his thin-faced clerk had finished the tally and it was time to barter.  Rune got up and wandered over towards the wagons, more because he had nothing else to do than to watch the misery of the sweating slaves struggling to hoist the heavy bags of charcoal onto the already high piles that had been collected earlier along the route.  The Overseer was a brute of a man and he pushed and hit the slaves more than was necessary to speed them along.  It was obvious he also felt he had something to fear, for he kept looking over his shoulder at the forest and there was no doubt he wished to get back to the safety of the city as soon as he could.  His face was scarred and the tell-tale ribbing in the flesh of his neck showed that he himself had worn a slave's collar for more than a few years.  He wore an armless leather tunic and heavy boots, without the leggings that the buyer and drivers favored.  The ash staff he carried had a heavy metal boss affixed at each end of it's five foot length and in his belt hung a well-used leather lash and the short sword of a tavern fighter, both ominously denoting that his ways were governed by force rather than reason.  From the looks he received, whenever his back was turned, it was certain that the slaves waited only for the day they could catch him unawares and beat him to death with their fists as retribution for their suffering at his hands.

The main loading had been completed and the slaves had already been bullied back into the prison wagon, when the overseer remembered the spillings in the barn.  He unlocked three of the slaves from the rest of the line and dispatched them to sweep up and sack the extra profit for his master, with threats of what any time lost would cost them in pain and hunger.  Rune followed the three men that had been singled out for this task, for no other reason than he needed to get away from the Overseer.  As they passed the house the last man stopped, nearly causing his fellows to trip so sudden was his decision. 

Maer had come out of the house at that very moment, her chubby little legs trying hard to balance her plump little body.  Her mop of blond curls danced in the breeze above a doll-like face that was concentrating hard on the large piece of freshly baked bread she carried in her little hands.  Rune took it that it was the bread that had caught the man's interest.  The others, with glances back at the overseer, murmured something to him urgently and they all moved on towards the barn.  The scene was so dramatic, plump little Maer with so large a piece of bread and this manacled slave, whose gray skin was so tightly stretched over his malnourished body that every bone showed through.  Maer, freshly washed with bouncing curls, compared to this dirt streaked stranger whose hair was so closely cropped it seemed no longer than the day or two's growth of beard that covered his strained face.

Rune was inside the house at the run and out again in seconds with two loaves of bread before the convicts had moved more than a few steps.  Breaking the bread and forcing it into their hands he felt the same feeling one must get diving into a raging river to save a drowning child.  Their eyes showed him more thanks than any child could have given it's own father, as they tore at the bread with dirty and broken teeth.  They swallowed each piece so fast one would have thought they feared he intended to take back what they did not eat immediately.

The Overseer was behind him even as Rune heard him and his instinct took over as the staff hit him across the shoulders.  The blow had been a warning rather than heavy and intended to harm, but Rune had turned and wrenched the staff from the Overseer's hands before the man could control his forward motion.  Rune's knee came up to double the ex-slave over with a scream of pain.  Unable to control his anger the staff was above his head and about to crush the Overseer's skull when Mother screamed.  It was enough.  Rune stopped and looked around, the anger draining away as fast as it had come.  Every guard in the clearing had his bolt aimed at Rune's heart.  Mother and the buyer were beside him, even as the Overseer started to climb to his feet, both hands grasped below his belt and his face white with pain.  The threats he mouthed became more fearful as the guards began to chuckle and then laugh openly, at the bully's predicament.  A half-wit had had him down and could have ended him and he had not been able to defend himself or even land a real blow.  The Overseer's right hand came away from his injury and a short-sword filled his fist as he came upright.

"No!"  The Buyer shouted, freezing the scene in a fear-filled moment in time,  "If anyone dies here today the next time we come this way may very well be our last."

The Overseer slowed but Rune's immediate death was obviously still his main objective.

"Kill this half-wit and I may get killed the next time out. . ."  Said the buyer more quietly,  ". . .and that will mean your Bond is up Bridor, then you will go back into the slave barracks.  How long do you think you will last in there, Bridor?" 

The Overseer wilted visibly, then he returned his sword to it's sheath and left them, giving Rune a look as he passed him that could have boiled a snowdrift.

"I put it in my will that if I die, the bond I put up for him is forfeit and he goes into the slave-barracks in Natan. . ." 

Vanaten had started to explain to Mother, but she had already left and was nowhere to be seen, neither were the slaves.  The Buyer looked at Rune, sniffed in disgust and started shouting to his men to get the train moving.  In a very short time the slaves came out of the barn carrying the sack of spillings they had collected, with Mother walking out behind them.  In fifteen minutes the clearing was as empty as the barn.

The trade-goods stood piled upon the porch and Rune passed them to go into the house, to find Mother stood in front of the fireplace stirring up the embers with the poker, obviously deep in thought.  He took it that his outrage had frightened her, so he took his chair at the table and said nothing as she absent mindedly put a bowl of hot soup before him.  The children were out playing with the new ball that had been part of the trade, so the two of them were alone in the dark warm room.  After what seemed like an eternity, Mother brought a bowl of soup for herself and sat across the table from Rune.  Her face showed signs of tension and for the first time he saw that her eyes were red and that she had without doubt spent a lot of tears while she had stood with her back to him in front of the fire.

"You came near to ending everything out there you know."  Mother said, seemingly without emotion.

"I know but those poor men needed that bread and when that animal hit me from behind. . .  well. . .  something just snapped." 

For some reason he could feel himself flushing with what must be embarrassment,  "It's a good thing you shouted, I think I might just have killed him had you not done so."

"You scared me you know Rune, you've never scared me before but then, I never saw anyone get that angry in the turn of a breath.  I never thought you had that much anger inside of you, even after living under the same roof with you all these years." 

She paused, as if afraid to continue, then she said so quietly that he almost did not hear her, "Did you know any of those men you gave the bread to Rune?" 

He replied that he did not and received the shock of his life when she said: 

"I did Rune. . .  the last one was my husband, Casper Havor."   And then she began to cry again. . .


* * * * * * *


Chapter Six

Table of Contents